The far western suburbs of Jerusalem now incorporate what was once the village of En Karem. The site was continuously occupied from about 2000 BC, but all the significant remains are of the Byzantine and medieval periods.
The attractiveness of the site, and the fact that is equidistant from Jerusalem and Bethlehem probably explain the C6 AD tradition which placed here the home of Zachary and Elizabeth, the encounter between the latter and the Blessed Virgin (Luke 1:39-56), and the birthplace of John the Baptist.
Church of St John the Baptist
The earliest church on the site goes back to the C5. The Crusaders took over a C11 church, whose proportions they retained. What modifications they introduced cannot be determined in detail. Used by the Muslims as a byre, the building was recovered by the Franciscans in the second half of the C17.
Church of the Visitation
With its mosaic façade (1955) depicting Mary visiting Elizabeth this church stands out clearly in the direction of the Hadassah Hospital. The two-tier church was completely rebuilt in 1946, but care was taken to incorporate all the medieval and Byzantine elements that came to light.
It is identified as the church of the abbey of St John in the Woods, which the Cistercians established in 1169. Subsequently it became an Armenian monastery, but in 1480 Felix Fabri saw only ‘broken altars and ruined vaults’.
A pre-Crusader double church is attested by a visitor in 1106, who confirms the localization there of a C2 AD legend in which John the Baptist escaped the massacre of the children of Bethlehem (Matt 2:16). ‘Elizabeth, when she heard that John was sought for, took him and went up into the hill country, and looked around to see where she could hide him, and there was no hiding place. Elizabeth groaned aloud and said, “o mountain of God, receive me, a mother, with my child.” For Elizabeth was so afraid she could go no further. Immediately the mountain was rent asunder and received her’ (Protoevangelium of James 22.3).
Source: The Holy Land by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor